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Opinion Biden’s options to avert disaster in Afghanistan are shrinking

Smoke rises from houses amid fighting between Afghan security forces and the Taliban in Qala-e-Naw, Afghanistan, on July 7. (AFP/Getty Images)

President Biden has a few precious weeks to bolster his plan for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan so that the country doesn’t degenerate into an even more chaotic and dangerous mess. The impact of the U.S. departure is proving more swift and shattering than even the pessimists predicted.

Biden must have hoped that he would be winning applause this summer for finally bringing home the troops from the United States’ longest and perhaps most frustrating war. Instead, he’s facing mounting anxiety — both within his administration and abroad — about the rapid demise of the Kabul government and the danger of an armed takeover by the Taliban.

A bloody collapse in Kabul would be a self-inflicted wound for Biden, and the first serious mistake of his presidency. He decided, against military advice, to withdraw the small U.S. commitment of 2,500 troops who remained when he took office. Having chosen this course, he should have planned far better for the transition and framed a clearer strategy for avoiding a Taliban takeover.

The White House is recognizing the painful reality that Biden will own the Afghan endgame, whatever it is. Three other presidents made the decisions that led to this war. But it was Biden who rejected the advice of many of his senior military and national security advisers and decided to pull the plug quickly and decisively.

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“This is a disaster in slow motion,” argues Saad Mohseni, the head of Moby Group, the largest media organization in Afghanistan. He asks why the Biden administration failed to encourage a continued presence by U.S. contractors who could help the Afghan army continue its operations, and why it didn’t plan better long-term security for key locations, such as Kabul's international airport.

Biden’s options for stabilizing Afghanistan now are severely limited. U.S. combat troops are gone: Once the military was given the order to retreat, it didn’t waste any time. But Biden still has some leverage that could check the panic that’s spreading in Afghanistan following the U.S. military’s departure — and forestall a Taliban armed takeover in Kabul in the next three months, as analysts fear is likely.

Here are some steps Biden could take to reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic outcome:

  • Appoint a special U.S. military envoy to visit Kabul immediately and recommend measures to assist the Afghan military and provide continuing U.S. support. Two obvious possibilities are retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and retired Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former coalition commander in Afghanistan, who this year co-chaired a blue-­ribbon Afghan study group for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
  • Demand that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani create a leadership council that includes all major forces across the country that oppose the Taliban. This “big tent” is the country’s last chance to gather a coalition that can check a takeover by the Taliban.
  • Back an international mediator who can bolster U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s dogged but so far unsuccessful efforts to encourage a peaceful transition agreement between the Taliban and the Kabul government. Afghanistan’s neighbors — Pakistan, India, Russia, China and Iran — all oppose a military takeover by the Taliban. So a regional consensus for stability is within the realm of what can be achieved.

But the United States needs urgent help from Afghanistan’s neighbors in assembling a broader coalition government and preventing a Taliban takeover. This shouldn’t be an ask, as in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s March letter to Ghani, but a demand — backed by all the carrots and sticks America has in hand.

If Afghanistan turns out to be a freewheeling disaster, it will obliterate other seeming gains in the battle of influence with Russia or China. The trickiest issue is how to get help from China, which is worried about an Afghan government collapse but has seemed to be gloating over the United States’ troubles.

Afghanistan will never be Switzerland, but it can be a more modern and prosperous Afghanistan. Here’s one statistic that should remind us all why it’s worth helping the Kabul government survive: In the more than 200 district centers now under Taliban control, they have closed 40 radio stations, according to Mohseni, the media executive. The five they have allowed to continue operating don’t broadcast any women’s voices or any music.

The Afghan military is collapsing faster than Biden expected. The White House is rattled by the flight of more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers into neighboring Tajikistan, and by the weakness of the commando corps, supposedly the government’s best fighters. The commandos are trying to operate in disparate locations in this large, mountainous country — and without support from U.S. contractors, they don’t have a chance.

America is grateful that our troops are coming home, after 20 years. Biden needs to move quickly to make certain that they leave behind something more than ruin and broken promises.

Read more:

David Von Drehle: There’s a wrong way to withdraw from war. We’re on the verge in Afghanistan.

David Ignatius: In Afghanistan, a summer of pain awaits

The Post’s View: Biden’s cold response to Afghanistan’s collapse will have far-reaching consequences

Paul Waldman: Conservatives are gearing up to blame Afghanistan on liberals